Europe, Britain and the Iran Deal: Back to The Future?

In 2002, Robert Kagan famously wrote an article claiming that “the US is from Mars, the EU is from Venus.” He inferred that US belligerence in its push for war with Iraq, compared to the EU’s insistence on a diplomatic settlement, was a predictable consequence of the more masculine and feminine characteristics associated with these two bodies. It was a seminally important contribution to our understanding of how rubbish 2002 was.

Flash forward to 2018, and Donald Trump has announced the end of US participation the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) due to it being “a horrible one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made.” Immediately there were reports that Washington had already reached out to European states in an attempt to lay the groundwork for a push for economic disengagement from Iran. US ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell tweeted that all 120 countries currently engaged in business there should “wind down their operations immediately.” Following on from Emanuel Macron’s telegraphed congressional ‘rebuke’ to Trump’s position on Iran, French finance minister Bruno Le Maire has added “the international reach of US sanctions makes the US the economic policeman of the planet, and that is not acceptable.” Break out the Lord of Rings box set, that is a very 2002 statement.

While there have been a number of major points of disagreement between Trump and other European partners (May, Merkel, Macron all have a little orange on their sparring gloves already), the lack of particularities in Trump doctrine has given the animosity little room to crystalize in terms of concrete foreign policy chasm. Indeed, it was only a few weeks ago that the US and UK and France engaged in a joint offensive against Syria. That demonstration of unity may now be as strained as Chad Kroeger’s vocals in Nickelback’s 2002 hit ‘How you remind me.’

It would seem the US and Europe are set for a diplomatic showdown on the US’s long term Middle Eastern nemesis Iraq Iran. Macron and other French ministers have been clear in the lead-up to Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA that it would be determined to keep the framework of the deal alive. Other European leaders have made similar noises. For its part, Iran’s President Rouhani has acknowledged the potential for the deal to survive, if Europe can push back against Trump. Subsequent to the announcement by Trump, the UK, Germany and France issued a joint statement of ‘regret and concern’ regarding the US decision. Yet necessarily this places Britain, in what appears to be its most familiar resting position these days, squarely between a rock and a hard place. And like The Rock’s 2002 movie the Scorpion King, it is a position from which a positive public reception will be difficult to achieve…

Supporters have sold quite a lot of the promise of a post EU brexit Britain on a new free trade arrangement with the US. President Obama warned Britain it would be ‘at the back of the queue’ for any such arrangement, so naturally it was greeted with glee amongst pro-Brexit Tories when Treasury Secretary Mnuchin au contraire’d the previous administration and claimed Britain would be ‘at the front of the line’. The US and Britain, together again, FTW! So far, so 2002.

But even before the Iran spat, and despite Britain’s global reputation for fabulous queuing, the line of other foreign policy priorities for the Trump administration to deal with has grown significantly…and inverted itself, and then gone on fire a couple of times. The queue seems more like a riot now, and with the potential discord from the Iran spat between Britain and an administration with an almost pathological fixation with loyalty, will there be any guarantee that someone is actually going to serve Liam Fox if he gets to the end of it? If tensions continue to mount between the US and Iran, Theresa May could find herself in a difficult position having to decide whether to act as a wandering transatlantic go-between, or to be drawn towards the pull of Venus or Mars once again. Either orbit will be deeply unpopular with vital domestic constituencies. Most importantly, will the post-Brexit relationship between May and Trump soar, like Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale? Or crash and burn, like Britney and Justin? The 2002 analogy seems to hold only bad omens for us all…